A Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars (excerpt)

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Chapter 26 from Nguyen Cong Luan's memoir Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars. In this chapter, he describes his experiences during the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Transcript of A Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars (excerpt)

NATIONALIST VIET NAM WARSMEMOIRS OF A VICTIM TURNED SOLDIER

IN THE

Nguyn Cng Lun

t w e n t y- s i x

The End

When I stepped out of the plane at the Air America terminal in Tn Sn Nht, the Vietnamese girl who checked the manifest asked me, Why do you come back? Lt fell last night. I said nothing, because it might have taken a few hours to explain what I was thinking to one who had never been a soldier. I didnt go on leave traditionally given to those just coming back from schooling abroad and went on to work at the GPWD. That was one of the longest months in my life. There were too many events that frightened everybody. My superiors were all nervous and so busy that they did not remember to complete the last simple paperwork to make my promotion to lieutenant colonel official. As for me, I didnt like to ask them to act. So I could claim myself a major or a lieutenant colonel as I liked. The American plan to evacuate a number of Vietnamese heightened panic in Si Gn. U.S. Air Force C-5A flights were evacuating Vietnamese orphans out of the country in the Baby Lift operation. Other U.S. flights moved Vietnamese who were related to U.S. citizens. Then a large number of Vietnamese began to seek ways to leave Vit Nam. The death of General Nguyn Vn Hiu moved me deeply. General Hiu died by a pistol shot in Bin Ha on April 8 when I had just returned from the States. Some said he was shot by a corrupt generals underling; others said he accidentally killed himself when he was cleaning his pistol. Among my bosses in my years serving the ARVN, General Hiu had been my favorite. He had impeccable manners and was a brilliant commander. His death aggravated my despair at the survival chances of the RVN. The situation deteriorated greatly when an ARVN Air Force pilot who had deserted to the communist side flew an RVNAF jet fighter and tried to drop a451

C In opy di ri an gh a te U d ni m ve a rs ter ity ia Pr l es s

Dar k Apr il

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Victory or Defeat

bomb on the Presidential Palace. He missed. The A-37 had been captured by the communist forces weeks earlier in Central Vit Nam. On April 17, the anticommunist regime in Cambodia under President Lon Nol was overthrown. Its prime minister, Sirik Matak, refused the U.S. ambassadors offer to evacuate him and died bravely at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The last words of his letter to the ambassador read, I have committed the mistake of believing in you, the Americans. Most Vietnamese nationalists like me did not believe in the American leaders either, but we found no better friend to rely on. The fall of Phnom Penh seemed to precipitate the fate of Si Gn. I felt that the end was coming closer. The deadliest blow came when the U.S. Congress refused to allocate more military aid to South Vit Nam. Many people sought help from American friends or bribed officials to flee the country by American air transportation; some even managed to have their children registered in the list of orphans to be flown by the Baby Lift. Every day, more friends left the country with their families. A few of them let their families go first while they stayed. I felt such a solution acceptable, but my wife firmly rejected it. She said she and the whole family would be beside me and share with me everything that might happen to me whether I decided to go or stay. Many times in my dreams, I saw myself dialing my office telephone to get through to my friends at long-distance area codes 957 or 958 or 964 in Ph Bi, Nng, Qui Nhn, and elsewhere. These areas were under control of communist forces. In the second week of April, I met Ogden Williams at the home of Mr. Buss, who was an advisor to the Rural Development Ministry. I just asked them about the possibilities of defending South Vit Nam. Williams had been a good friend to Vit Nam since 1955. He was trying to do something to help. He was working on the idea of asking Iran for military aid. I hated to ask any of them to help my family, even Lee Broddock in the U.S. embassy. Kenneth Quinn had introduced me to him for the translation of my study on North Vit Nam. Lee had my address and telephone number. I was unable to contact him in the last hours. I was living the last days of Si Gn with a lonely feeling when my friends fled one after another. My best friends who could help were too far away. On April 23, President Gerald Ford announced that the Vit Nam War was a war that is finished. Along with Congresss failure to pass a supplemental aid bill for Vietnam, Fords statement destroyed our last hope. Then President Thiu resigned and was replaced by Vice President Tran Vn Hng. A few days later, Hng resigned. Power was shifted to General Dng Vn Minh, whose ascent to power had not been provided for by the RVN

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The End 453

constitution. The political solution was only hastening the already irrecoverable panic among the people and soldiers. French statesmen and diplomats were trying to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. Their failure to do so only aggravated our despair. In that situation, I couldnt decide what to do. I knew for certain that I would be in danger at the hands of the communists, but I also hesitated to flee. The feeling of being a deserter while the majority of my fighting fellows were still there was too great for me to make a final decision. So I had to wait until the last minute. I heard a rumor that some groups of army soldiers and officers were planning to bring down any airplane of former president Thiu and former prime minister Trn Thin Khim if they fled the country. However, the two leaders quietly left for Taiwan five days before Si Gn collapsed without any trouble. General Cao Vn Vin, joint chief of staff, followed suit.1 Another rumor circulated that some ARVN major units would fight U.S. combat forces if they entered Vit Nam to evacuate 1,000 American civil and military personnel. Anything was possible in a chaotic situation. But the rumor did not come true. On April 28, a second VNAF fighter from the communist-controlled area attacked Tn Sn Nht Air Base. The bombing stopped most air traffic in and out of Tn Sn Nht. On April 29, only a few fix-winged planes took off. A communist missile hit and destroyed a VN Air Force cargo C-119. After that, only military helicopters were seen in the sky. By the early morning of April 29, Si Gns main streets were jammed with traffic. People were nervous. They were heading for the quay areas and Tn Sn Nht Airport/Air Base to seek ways to escape the imminent disaster. In that hopeless situation, on the front line in Xun Lc, Long Khnh, north of Si Gn, the ARVN Eighteenth Division still held its ground, fighting to stop the enemy. According to some news reports, the ARVN Air Force attacked the advancing communist force in Long Khnh, using a powerful bomb (either a CBU-55, cluster bomb unit, or a BLU-82 Daisy Cutter) that wiped out an NVA regiment. The news flashed a thin ray of optimism, but it was not bright enough to become a torch of hope. Many friends of mine had a plan to withdraw their units to the Mekong Delta if there was an order, or even an appeal, from some leader to establish a new line of defense of a smaller republic in the rice bowl of Vit Nam. There was no such order or appeal as no leader had power and credibility enough to rally a disintegrating army. The new joint chief of staff had no way to assume full control of his armed forces. The nationalist parties were too weak to do anything in such a desperate situation. My Vit Quc comrades in Military Region II, especially in the provinces

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Victory or Defeat

of Qung Tr, Tha Thin, Hu, and Qung Nam, suffered heavy losses after the area fell into the hands of the NVA divisions. The Vit Quc strength in other parts of South Vit Nam was not strong enough to affect the situation. Late on April 29, many of my men did not report to my GPWD, a noncombat service. At 4 pm, I stopped by my home for a quick dinner. Kids! Should I stay home with you or go to my barracks? I asked my children. The sergeant and the corporal down the street went to their units half an hour ago, my fifteen-year-old daughter said. You are a field grade . . . I knew what she meant. I told my wife to take care of the family, jumped into my jeep, and nodded to the driver to go without looking back. Since early in the afternoon, American Jolly Green Giant helicopters and their brother UH-1Bs had been picking up Americans and Vietnamese at several placesthe Defense Attach Office (DAO) landing zone, the U.S. embassy, and the top floors of many tall buildings. High in the sky, several U.S. jet fighters returned after more than two years to protect the evacuation. At 9 pm, General Trn Vn Trung, who decided to stay until the last minute, called General Nguyn Hu C, the defense minister newly appointed by President Dng Vn Minh. General Trung asked me to listen to their conversation on an extension phone. From them, I knew that the general situation over most of the Mekong Delta provinces was quiet. At least two infantry divisions with full strength were available for reinforcement to Si Gn. But the JGS Operations Center, the key instrument to coordinate all movements, operations, and supports, ceased operating because only a few officers and NCOs were present. General Trung told me that even if the two divisions were in Si Gn that very minute, they could only extend the fate of the capital city for a few more days or a week when aid was cut. He looked tired, and I could tell how he was feeling lonely by his voice and his eyes. That was my sleepless night, and the roaring of a dozen helicopters evacuating people from the U.S. embassy only 100 yards from my barracks terrified me. I asked the guards to patrol around the blo